Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview with Charles Fort’s great nephew, Pat Spain

Nat Geo’s new “Beast Hunter”
04 March 2011
Gerri Miller

Looking a bit like Justin Timberlake with an easy grin and an enthusiasm that’s infectious, Pat Spain is a wildlife scientist with a special interest in crypto-zoological creatures, ones that may or may not exist, and he’s traveled the globe to investigate them for the new National Geographic Channel series Beast Hunter, premiering Mar. 4. Having grown up the middle of three kids in Wynantskill, New York and earned his Bachelor of Science from Suffolk University in Boston, Spain created a Web series called Nature Calls in 2005, which ultimately put him on Nat Geo’s radar. “I’m so excited to be doing this and it means a lot that other people are getting interested in it too,” he says. He had a lot more to say in the following conversation.

How does your show differ from others, such as History Channel’s Monster Quest?

I feel like a lot of these shows rely on the ‘we just don’t know’ factor, quick camera turns and ‘what was that?’ Blair Witch style stuff. It’s a quest for an animal without doing the upfront work. I’m not saying it specifically about Monster Quest but a lot of these shows really bother me, like when it’s a diurnal animal and they go out with night vision cameras, looking for it at night. And they don’t call it by the correct regional name. What’s different about our show is that we’re doing an initial reconnaissance mission. We’re saying. ‘Should science look closer at this creature? Is there real evidence that this is there?’ On the investigations we were doing, if we stumbled across something it would be great but we didn’t go out there with collecting kits. This is more about learning the plausibility of this creature.

You did five episodes: The Man Ape of Sumatra, the Nightmare of the Amazon, the Swamp Monster of the Congo, the Sea Serpent of the North and the Mongolian Death Worm. How did you pick these?

There are current sightings, credible witnesses, and there’s an ecosystem that really could support this type of life and it’s remote enough that there hasn’t been enough research done in this area. There are thousands of these crypto-zoological creatures, all these legends. And what we do is put them through some type of scientific rigor and say, ‘Where are the recent accounts? Which ones can we say are mistaken identity, ‘this is too mythical?’

Are hairy hominids like Orang Pendek, the Man Ape, more plausible?

It’s so fascinating for me because the legend of the hairy hominid spans every culture. You’ve got the Yeren in in China, the Yeti in india, Bigfoot in North America, the Yowie in Australia. I think there’s something in our subconscious where we know we did coexist with other species of hominid at one point. There’s some cultural memory of this. There’s also the idea that there have been wild men through history, sighted and being seen and I think there has to be something to that. There’s a race of small humans that were found on the isle of Flores. This is a documented discovery, bones of this species. So I don’t think it can be ruled out. One of my favorite quotes in the entire show is when I went to Sumatra one of the guides that was working with us said, ‘The people who don’t believe in these animals are people who have never been to my forest.’ If you think about the migratory species of bipedal ape, they’re going to have some intelligence and exist in small numbers anyway because that’s what apes do. So I think there’s a basis in something, absolutely.

What can you tell us about the other creatures you investigated? What is the Nightmare of the Amazon?

This is the legendary beast in the Amazon rainforest. Some accounts describe a 20-foot- tall mythical Cyclops creature with one eye and a giant gaping mouth in its chest and a horrible stench that kills people who abuse the forest--like an eco-superhero, which I love. But when I actually met with the natives who live in the area where the animals are found, they described a giant ground sloth. We know a giant ground sloth lived in that area but went extinct about 10,000 years ago. These people have very recent sightings of giant ground sloths. When you think about it, humans killed off the giant ground sloth. We over hunted them. And in this region the people don’t believe they can be hunted, they have this respect for them. So if there’s an ecosystem that can support it, and there is, and no one’s been hunting them for generations, it may still be there. I can’t wait for people to see this because we did capture some things that I don’t think anyone else has gotten. The crew was terrified.

Is the Sea Serpent of the North similar to the Loch Ness Monster?

Similar. Nessie is usually described as kind of a plesiosaur, and this is more like a basilosaurus, kind of a long snakelike whale. It’s off the coast of Vancouver and they call it cadborosaurus. There’s a photo of it, and credible witnesses.

Tell us about the Mongolian Death Worm..

Best name in crypto-zoology. They call it Olgoi-Khorkhoi. You hear the story of the Mongolian Death Worm, this three- to four-foot-long worm in the Gobi Desert that shoots electricity, spits acid, oh, and if you touch it, you die and you write it off, but if we break it down, there are other animals in nature that exhibit each one of those characteristics. They take incredible characteristics and add them on to known animals. That’s the heart of our series, looking for the truth behind these legends.

You went to some pretty remote places. What was the most difficult experience?

The nightmare was Sumatra. I love it, but it was the hardest shoot I’ve ever done, either for the show or anything else. It poured down rain for two weeks. I was soaked through. I got trench foot, which is the skin rotting. I picked up a stomach bug the third day we were there and it’s actually still with me. It was a really bad bacteria that affected my large intestine and stopped the peristaltic action of it. So I’m on an incredibly limited diet. The whole shoot, everything about it, the areas we had to get to were so remote, we had a two hour canoe ride to get in there but it was beautiful, one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen. You wake up in the morning and you’re on a volcanic lake that only a handful of westerners have ever seen.

Any dangerous close calls?

Getting sick in Sumatra was really terrifying. It hit me very quickly and I was writhing on the floor in the worst pain I’ve ever been in, vomiting and convulsing. Also, in Africa, we ran into one situation, we had a roadblock where the villagers had knocked a treed down in front of a road and as we pulled up to it men with machetes approached the car. I was cowering in the back seat but the guys we were with were hardened professionals. Most of my fear doesn’t come from the animals. I was stalked by tigers at one point and I loved it, that was no problem. You know, I’ve been bitten by just about everything you can think of, from a baby bear to a python to rabid raccoons and rattlesnakes. The rabid raccoon was the worst bite I ever got. I was working down in Maryland on an oyster farm. I was 21 and I was taking a break, lying on a picnic table, getting some sun and I heard a noise and just saw teeth jumping at my face. It latched onto my arm and I screamed, and started hitting him against the picnic table, and eventually he let go and ran away. I needed 14 shots that day and every two weeks I had to go back for more.

How do you prepare for an investigation? What tools and techniques do you arm yourself with?

Each one is completely different. We used the highest tech gear that we could get. We used a lot of FLIR thermal imaging cameras. We used a lot of camera and video traps, we used night vision; we went down in a three-man submersible, 1000 feet down for the Sea Serpent one. We went out on a deep-sea vessel, Deadliest Catch style. That was amazing.
But I try to travel light. I always have my snake sticks because I can’t help myself. If I see a snake I’m going to pick it up. I promised my girlfriend that I won’t handle venomous snakes without my gear.

How did you get interested in this field?

It's been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. I was in diapers collecting jars filled with bees and getting stung over and over because I wanted to see what they felt like. One of my first memories is finding a garter snake in my backyard. I had to be less than three years old. Before I could read my mom would read me books about the mating habits of tree frogs. I raised venomous snakes in my basement and lied to my mom about what they were. As a kid I absorbed everything I could about all these animals. I’d talk to neighbors who were hunters or outdoorsmen and they would teach me. Any time I was sick I was allowed to rent one movie and it was always a documentary, David Attenborough was my hero. I'm just so passionate about these animals, and I love sharing it with other people. And these are the big, unknown creatures in science and I want people to realize how exciting this is. And there's the possibility of such unbelievable discovery.

Your great-uncle, Charles Fort, was an author and pioneer in the field of strange phenomena and cryptids in particular. Was he an influence?

My grandmother always thought I was the crazy kid out there with the snakes and would say, ‘You’re just like your Uncle Charlie,’ but she never explained, and it wasn’t till I was late in junior high that she gave me first editions and signed copies of his books. It’s almost like it’s in my blood to be doing this. My dream job is to come home covered in mud and showing people the bites that I got.

Do other aspects of the paranormal interest you, or just cryptids?

I’m fascinated by everything. The cryptids are the closest to my area of study but every year my girlfriend and I go up to Salem for Halloween and do amateur ghost hunting. We have fun with it

What’s your take on werewolves and chupacabras?

Chupacabras, I think, are a great story because there’s this black magic aspect to it but as a real animal I have a really hard time with it. Werewolves, I think, are fascinating in the mythology and the history of it. I don’t see a man turning into a wolf. I could see a large bear-like wolf out there somewhere that someone could extrapolate into this mythical creature. With vampires and werewolves and things like that we have to change the things we know about physics in order for them to work. The laws of physics don’t hold. So you kind of lose me there.

What do you think of movies about crypto-creatures?

I’m a huge horror movie buff. I love the cheesy movies and the good ones too. My favorites are classics like The Shining, The Exorcist. Jaws is so great, though it turned people off to sharks, which is a horrible thing. I love sharks. Harry and the Hendersons is great because it’s a happy critter flick.

What advice do you have for people who are as fascinated as you are and want to be amateur beast hunters?

Never give up. In the age that we live in now, I can’t tell you how powerful YouTube is. What I did to get my show going was I put up flyers all around Boston to find cameramen. I interviewed a bunch of people, found two guys that I really clicked with. I got a friend who’s as crazy as me at catching things and got my girlfriend to do logistics. Every dime I have went into making the show, getting to locations, buying gear, editing equipment. I set up an editing suite in our apartment. So don’t quit your day job.

You’ve kept your day job—you work at a pharmaceutical lab.

Yes, I work about 60 hours a week at Genzyme, a biotech company. We make treatments for very rare genetic disorders. People are lacking a particular enzyme to break down waste products and without that enzyme they would die a very painful death. We have tanks filled with Chinese hamster ovaries—they smell like feet—and they naturally secrete this enzyme. We take what they’re secreting, purify it down to the one enzyme, and inject it in people. It lets them live an almost completely normal life. It’s very rewarding. We have a real connection with our patients and we know how much it’s helping them. We’re the only ones doing it.

Are there more Beast Hunter episodes planned?

As soon as we get the green light we’re good to go. We’re planning to go to Northern India, Vietnam, possibly Bermuda, the Bahamas.

Will you write a book?

Absolutely. I am a writer. I love writing, short stories, fiction and non-fiction. I’m definitely hoping to turn this into a book.

What about other personal and professional goals?

There’s very little that I’m not interested in. My dream has always been to be a presenter on the National Geographic Channel and it happened by the time I was 30. I just want to keep going. I want to do this and I’d love to give speeches all over the world and get people as excited about these animals, both crypto- and biological, as I am.

What else are you passionate about?

I’m a huge music fan, mostly punk rock and as I got older I get into the singer songwriters like Bright Eyes. I go to music shows as much as I can. I love reading. J.D. Salinger is my absolute favorite author. I have no less than three books going at any one time. And any outdoor activities—kayaking, snowboarding, surfing, hiking. I like to stay busy. I don’t have down time, ever.

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